Yesterday I got an e-mail in my cell phone early in the morning. I was still sleeping. Oh lord, I thought, as I opened my eyes enough to read the message. It was from my former host mother (aka Okasan). How nice! She was asking me to dinner that evening at their house. Did I want to help cook? What should we make? It didn’t take me long to decide I wanted tempura, because the large amounts of oil make it a little too dangerous to do alone in my tiny kitchen.
It turned out it was one of Okasan’s favorite dishes too. We made tons and tons, and Okasan commented that at a restaurant one only gets a tiny portion of tempura, maybe 3 or so pieces. We ate far far more. (Picture was taken post-consumption.)
(Sorry I don’t have amounts. We didn’t work with measuring spoons or cups, but who does!)
First we prepared all the things we wanted to make into tempura. First prawns were peeled (except for the final section and tail), de-veined, and then sliced thrice on the inside of the curve then placed curve-side down on the chopping board and squished until there was a popping sound and the prawns lay flat. The kabocha (pumpkin) was sliced into thin pieces, as was the squid. The chikuwa was cut down the middle into half-tubes. Finally, my favorite, the onion/mizuna/carrot patty ingredients were prepared, which meant chopping the onion into half-rings, cutting mizuna greens (or any greens you like) into halves or thirds, and cutting the teensiest carrot into small matchsticks.
We dipped the kabocha, prawns, and squid into about 2 cups of all-purpose flour. Then, to the flour Okasan added 1 teaspoon of baking soda, an egg (not necessary), and enough water until it became a pancake batter consistency with lumps. Lumps are okay! But the batter shouldn’t sit around long or be beaten and stirred a lot before being used. This bowl of batter was set next to a deep wok which was half full of cooking oil at a medium flame.
While Okasan was making the batter, I made the dipping sauce, which has a base of 1 cup dashi stock, to which I added 2 teaspoons soy sauce and 2 teaspoons sugar. Then I spent forever grating a large chunk of daikon raddish, which we put into the dipping sauce at the table.
Back to making the tempura, using the trustworthy cooking chopsticks, I started with the kabocha, dipping the flour-covered pieces into the prepared batter and then depositing them into the hot oil. Since the kabocha had been raw to begin with, they took a while to cook. I checked their progress by poking my chopstick into the middle of a thick piece. If the kabocha gave easily, the kabocha tempura was done.
We put the finished tempura in a sort of small cookie sheet with a metal rack in it to drain the oil. Then to serve, Okasan put all the tempura nicely on a large plate lined with special oil-absorbing paper, but paper towels would probably work fine.
Next was the squid, which is the scariest one to do. Upon putting the batter-covered pieces into the oil, they started spitting and spattering oil. Careful! These were done when the batter had browned lightly and then extracted from the oil at a distance.
After that, things were mostly safe. We dipped the prawns in the batter by holding the tails, and then laying them into the oil. These don’t need to be cooked very long at all, because then they become stiff and chewy.
The chikuwa were pretty straightforward, dipping into the batter with chopsticks and putting into the oil for only a little while.
Finally, we put the onions, mizuna, and carrot into the remaining batter and stirred it all together. Then, part of the mixture was put into the oil, making two different patties at a time. This cooked for a long while, until the patties were crisp and didn’t fall apart. Then, they were flipped and cooked a while longer until crisp. We repeated this until the onion/mizuna/carrot mixture was used up.
To eat, we put the dipping sauce into individual bowls, added a little daikon and dipped the tempura piece by piece as we ate them. Yummy!
Beside the tempura, we ate white rice (of course!), a clear soup with mussels and broccoli rabe (aka rapini)… simply beautiful!, and blanched broccoli tossed in butter and chopped garlic (my non-Japanese contribution).